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Shooting Scene: Not His Grandparents' Neighborhood

Online Video Conjures Memories Of Other Days

Michael Downs

May 01, 2011

How strange to feel elated at the sight of Hartford police stringing yellow tape on Maple Avenue.

But I was!

Hundreds of miles away, visiting by laptop a neighborhood I once regularly visited in person, I watched a recent courant.com video captured not much earlier. It was as if I were one of that trio in the background, the people with the dog, watching the goings-on from the sidewalk in front of the house where my grandparents had lived for more than 50 years.

From Baltimore (like Hartford, only with more crime and a better sense of humor), I still follow my hometown's news: the mayoral corruption, the basketball parades. Recently, "Maple Avenue" in a headline grabbed my attention, even more so when I noticed at which cross streets police had stopped traffic. My excitement was the sort my grandmother would have felt watching the 6 o'clock news and recognizing a face in a crowd.

"Come see," I can hear her call to my grandfather. "Fran is on TV!" I wanted to call to my wife: "Look! My grandparents' sidewalk!"

The video, without narration, gave me gray skies and leafless Goodwin Park trees remaining true to winter. I know those sights as well as I know the blocky stone stairway, just behind a man shown taking evidence photos, that leads to the porch where my grandfather each morning unlocked deadbolts and slid loose a few chains to retrieve the newspaper from the step. Sipping tea, he might have read about crimes. But never did he read about a shooting so close to home, at midday, when he might have been out for a stroll.

Once, while traveling, I met a man from Wethersfield. I told him that my grandparents lived near Goodwin Park. He allowed as how he didn't visit there anymore because "the scum line keeps moving south." Our conversation ended there. Hearing this most recent news, what would he say?

I can guess what my grandmother might say, watching from the front step. "What's wrong with people?" My grandfather might answer, "It's not people. It's two people. We don't know the circumstances."

"A man shot somebody!" she'd answer, waving her hands. "What more do you need to know? It's wrong!"

Their house was twice burglarized, and my grandmother's righteous anger at those violations was sharpened by nostalgia for a safer Hartford. My grandfather didn't like to see his neighborhood degraded he complained bitterly that people didn't clean up after their dogs but he didn't like to judge.

In the story that accompanied the video, witnesses said men were arguing. Then one shot the other, left him bleeding from an arm and his chest. Arguing? I think, My God, what's wrong with people?

About two years ago, a couple of blocks from where I now live in Baltimore, a punk kid burglarized a house. Living there was a Vietnam vet who fought back. The punk killed him. My wife and I tried not to talk about it. We like our neighborhood, and we didn't want to be afraid. We didn't mention it to friends. We don't want anyone to think we live on the wrong side of a scum line.

By the 10th time that I watched the video of Maple Avenue, I wanted not to see the yellow tape. I don't trust nostalgia. I don't yearn for the good old days, whatever that means. But I want people who now live on Maple Avenue to feel safe and happy, because I want them to be, in fact, safe and happy.

I want this shooting to be an aberration, because I fear that it's a small step from yellow tape to "scum line" and a judgment for too many people who will decide "that's another neighborhood gone." I want people to see Maple Avenue clearly with neither false elation nor shallow judgment. And that includes me.

Michael Downs is an assistant professor of English at Towson University and former sports reporter for The Courant.. His book "House of Good Hope" was a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award in memoir. "The Greatest Show," his short story collection centered around the Hartford circus fire, will be published in spring 2012.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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